Book review: Killer Verse: Poems of Murder and Mayhem




Killer Verse: Poems of Murder and Mayhem edited by Harold Schechter and Kurt Brown (Knopf, $13.50).

If ever there was a time for a good read, it’s now, when the night comes early and the draw of warm blankets and hot cups turns our hands to books and pages. For those brave souls drawn to poetry, the latest tome from the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, Killer Verse: Poems of Murder and Mayhem, is a welcome break from the usual flowery collections that grace poetry shelves.

The collection takes the reader on a literary jaunt through the shadowy imaginations and horrific details of some of the larger known murderers and killers through time. For connoisseurs of the morbid, Killer Verse will boast some familiar names, but for the rest of us, a quick Google search will sometimes be in order. (Or not. Googling Richard Speck will not help insomnia.) The pop culture favorite Ed Gein — the inspiration for The Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Psycho — is there, as well as the frightening specters of Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden.

Be warned, though: One has to be in the mood for poems of dismemberment or the read can become a spiraling depression. While the sectional titles of “All in the Family” and “Psycho Killer” are amusing, the poems within quickly jump from matricide to mutilation in rapid form. Even works by the classic poets of the collection, such as Robert Browning and W.H. Auden, are not for a weak stomach. Despite the back cover image of a woman holding a gun, the majority of poems feature young women as victim and topic. One needn’t be a sensitive soul to want to put down the book in disgust when reading in succession the tale of girl after girl meeting a grisly end. The editors intersperse tales to give the book balance, but you get what you pay for: murder and mayhem. If the collection were a film, it would most likely be rated NC-17.

The highlights are the works that bring old tales to life in new ways. The poem “Whitechapel Nights,” by Susan Kelly, tells of the Jack the Ripper killings through the voice of a streetwalker going about her nightly routines while the Ripper strikes around her. Jack the Ripper has been done to death (forgive the pun), so the new angle’s a welcome treat.

Dark humor also dots the pages. The standout is “Facebook Psycho,” by Melissa Balmain, a pleasant surprise among anonymous murder ballads and Jeffrey Dahmer ditties. The brief poem begins with the following lines, and fans of wicked humor will get a kick out of the gruesome tale.

“I friended you; you didn’t friend me back,
which left me feeling powerless indeed:
despite my wounded longing to attack,
the software wouldn’t mark you ‘enemied’ … ”

In the end, it is the “Meditations on Murder” section that reminds us we are all perilously close to death in any moment, but by our human nature we observe it all with a shrug and a mental, “No, not me, can’t happen,” lest we be driven mad by it (“Crime Club,” by Weldon Kees) or become hardened to it (“Studying,” by Miles A. Coon).

That’s the point of Killer Verse, to read well-written, scary stories in the dark, to give ourselves a shiver down the spine that’s so deliciously alive, it comes close to joy.

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